Monday, April 19, 2010

Commove: Interview with Emil Amos (of Holy Sons, Grails & Om)

To say i was delighted when Emil Amos agreed to speak with me would be an understatement. Amos is known to most as a member of both Grails and Om, some of the most influential underground bands in existence today and some of my favorite music. He is also the mastermind behind Holy Sons, a one man amalgamation of multi instrumentation, samples and hypnotic vocals.

Amos grew up in Chapel Hill, NC and went to college in Asheville, NC. Despite being an east coast kid, for the past decade he has been based in Portland, Oregon.
If the truth be told, even thinking about Emil's work ethic makes me tired: Making music and touring in 3 different bands, music production, art and video art. In 2009 alone he released 6 records if you include a Grails DVD and a Jandek live show. He kindly agreed to take the time to answer some questions before he heads on another round of practicing, mixing and playing shows in the US, Canada and Europe.

How do you think the sound of Holy Sons has evolved over the years?

Around the time of the mini-LP "My Only Warm Coals" I began to relent to using computers to edit and re-mix songs. I had resisted them and largely hated any digital mode in the 90's. After having recorded 'Decline of the West' it dawned on me how many things could probably be improved if I went back and re-organized it.

I'd been making some of the Black Tar Prophecies recordings with Grails using my 4-track in tandem with computer editing and started to realize the possibilities. That began the biggest change I've undergone. Now I generally write using the computer for both Grails and Holy Sons...

Can you tell me about your song writing process?

The songs begin with the inception moment when the chord changes and the major piece of melody are worked out on guitar or piano, then we generally spend a couple days recording the basic rhythm tracks. Then we spend months or up to a year on just re-arranging everything until it really interests us as a relatively progressive or meaningful piece of music. Each song has to have a balance of lasting fundamental melodic elements along with an enough of an open structural ceiling to allow for the unknown to exist within them.

Holy Sons comes across as being unselfconscious, exploratory and organic. Your latest album 'Criminal's Return' was recorded over a 4 year period (2005-2009) and presents a wide aural landscape. How do you find the process of putting the album together?

Over the course of making a record there are too many opportunities to lose momentum. If you stick to your original plan, too much the process becomes boring and having to repeatedly analyze each song's errors takes the joy out of listening to the record. It seems to be part of a continual balance in life, where you can't really have anything you dream of without a price.

You can have an isolated thought like 'wouldn't it be nice to have my favorite meal delivered to me?'. In reality you have to go through the odyssey of earning the money for it beforehand and then go through the banal journey of taking your body to the restaurant to order the meal and waiting. By that time the glowing fantasy of the meal has diminished because you expect it; in your mind you deserve it now so it has lost its idyllic novelty.

My favorite aspect of making art is watching something appear out of nothing but once the 'something' is there and requires hard labor to become a refined/marketable expression, it can feel like there's a mountain to climb. To remedy this blight upon my life, I tend to overdub improv on top of each song until minutes before I hand the record in. I think it's the only way I can believe that something exciting will make it onto the record y'know?

I found that when I play music, I retreat and pretty much stop listening to external sources. It's almost if my brain won't allow for external distractions and I end up in this little vacuum. You're incredibly prolific and have created an enormous body of work musically (approx 2,000 Holy Sons recorded songs). As you create, do you become less or more interested in seeking out/listening to new music? Why do you think that is?

Everyone goes in cycles with that I think. But I often think of art as a sort of anthropological/historical dialectic so in that sense, if you aren't interested in what others have to say then why should they have any interest in you? Fundamentally, art is largely a form of communication.

Unfortunately I find it almost impossible to listen to new music. I don't dislike it on principal but find it much easier to view things in the past. It's a bad habit (although most of this is purely aesthetic and to do with recording qualities etc). It's also a way that I can rid myself and the maker of our awareness of the thing.

If it's music that sits in the past we can take for granted that this thing existed and it doesn't feel like the piece of art is asking for my approval. I hope this makes sense... like if I'm standing in front of a brand new painting, I feel more of a pressure to ask 'is this successful?'. Whereas if the painting is from the 1800's you may narrate it more as 'this was done in this province, at this time' and its 'flaws' may seem to be part of the piece's time and place.

You've worked with Damo Suzuki, Om, Grails, Yellow Swans, Dolorean and Jandek amongst others. How does this compare to working solo on Holy Sons?

I swear that making records is more about listening to what's happening more than doing anything in particular with instruments. So working on anything with anyone can be more about being present and aware of what the composition wants itself to be. Most of making records is just solving the problems that come along with making them; which is similar to the process of math. So getting along with others and having a productive working relationship can be one of the most important parts of getting it done.

Do you find it tough to find the time, energy and creativity to juggle (for want of a better description!) Holy Sons, Grails and Om?

It's been really pretty rough over these last 3 years making it all work. I'm surprised at what I've put myself through but the end goal is different for everyone and I think most people are willing to make some irrational compromises to achieve their own personal/rational end. All my opportunities and non-opportunities have happened in a way I think they were designed to happen; in some ways monumentally inconvenient and in others unforeseeably serendipitous.

What was the first album that struck a chord with you?

Honestly, I never ever thought I'd be proud or willing to admit it but the first record I remember being engrossed in was 'Kilroy was here' by Styx. Lately I've actually been hearing it's influence in the mixes I've been working on.... not sure if that's terrifying or what...

Name 5 albums that you've been listening to recently.

1 - Histoire d'O - Pierre Bachelet

2 - Katodivaihe - Pan Sonic

3 - Some Early Robert Schroder

4 - Bill Fay - Tomorrow Tomorrow and Tomorrow

5 - The Sandbaggers theme and Get Carter - Roy Budd

The cover of your records and your website feature some fascinating collages. Is there any particular reason that you are drawn to collaging with imagery and sound?

The first release I ever got to be on was a cassette compilation at my high school called the "Family of Power" somewhere around 1990. I was stoked! I have one friend that claims to have a copy, it's crazy rare and has most of the kids from that era of Chapel Hill, NC on it that are still playing in bands now.

Anyway we'd recorded this hardcore song in my living room with my first $100 drum set and four-track and right before turning the song in; I dubbed some tape clips of a pro-wrestler threatening the listener at the beginning of the song. I've never been sure why I did that but I remember feeling like this compilation was a pretty major event and called for some sort of extra presentation. Y'know not just '1,2,3,4' = song and really nothing has changed since then!

I still make homemade music dictated by the same impulse to pull in any disparate elements that increase the spectrum of the statement being made. That's just typical behavior of someone who's dissatisfied with the basic expectations of music and the boring formulas generally employed to meet them. So from the ghetto-view of being a little kid who lifted samples and made collage covers for our first tapes, the world was a just distant pile of junk that we felt alienated from. Out of the boredom we sifted through those piles and re-arranged whatever absurd trash to make it our own, just basic teenage/punk collage impulses.

Do you have a specific room/space that you like to write or record in?

Holy Sons has migrated across the nation's basements over so many different eras. Most of my favorite memories are from college because my studio was sort of like a deprivation chamber and the four-track was like an x-ray machine for whatever electrical process was occurring inside of me. It's nice to look back on all the ultra-powerful feelings and total misery that created those recordings from a distance now.

I'm just finishing recording a song that was originally done in around 1996 at college. I remember working on it after everyone had gone to sleep: creeping into the college church with my 4-track, climbing up to this massive pipe organ with pipes stretching across the ceiling of the church and recording various morbid anthems of pain. Great memories now, especially because I can use some of the songs.

Over the course of 20 years of home-recording you develop an extremely dense and tangled self-history... That's why you hear a lot of self-reference in Daniel Johnston (Museum of Love) or R.Stevie Moore (his entire career).

At this point I have more favorite instruments than favorite rooms. My favorite guitar is a 1936 Gene Autry Round up Acoustic that I use on almost every song (photo above). Certain guitars are amazing spiritual devices in their way. I still have the Rhodes piano that Grails has used since the beginning (that was originally owned by the Kingsmen) and the Leedy drum set that's been on every record we've made.

Where did your interest in esoterica/secret societies/cults etc begin? Also I've checked out your blog which has some interesting stuff on it, i need to devote a little more time to delve deeper!

I've always been obsessed with True Stories. I've never really been able to read fiction so while others might be busy memorizing the Necronomicon, I've always felt like the most interesting things are from our own lives. Oswald or any sort of historical mystery like that are the kind of stories I gravitate towards but I'm definitely into the scientific side of things.

I'm not solely into genres of esoteric phenomena in general, not into Bigfoot at all, don't like Crop Circles really, had an early dalliance with Loch Ness. I suppose the Bermuda Triangle's pretty sweet. Yeah, I'm interested in the true side of things and not just the fantasies.I guess, say with Alister Crowley or someone like that.

I'm more into deflating the myths and getting into what was either really going on behind the ego maniacal curtain or what of his thinking is actually applicable in a sort of productive way. But in ways I think 'Myths' have done society a grand disservice throughout history and have often kept people distracted and looking in the wrong direction.

Holy Sons play the Biltmore,Vancouver with Deer Tick and Sun Wizard on April 21st 2010. For full tour info see links below

Live Image of Emil: Kat Jaogrin


Unknown said...

Deadly, interesting dude, hadn't checked out the holy sons stuff, sounds dope!!!

Green of Eye, Sharp of Claw said...

@Cian: He seems like such an interesting guy, it’s a pity that time was tight as I would have loved to have talked to him in depth. A million questions!

Yeah definitely check out Holy Sons. I've had 'Decline of the West' on repeat for the past while.

Anonymous said...

Great interview!

I'm glad you asked him that last question, I've been curious about his interest for quite some time. I wonder if he listens to Dave Emory?


Andrew said...

Excellent interview. Kudos.

Green of Eye, Sharp of Claw said...

@ Nina: Thanks for reading + commenting! I'll ask him tomorrow night at the gig :)

Green of Eye, Sharp of Claw said...

@Andrew: Thanks.

Amy Duncan said...

thanks for this! I can't get enough of emil amos.

Green of Eye, Sharp of Claw said...

@Amy: No worries! Checked out your site-some interesting stuff there :)

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